August 20, 2007

Most IT leaders lay the foundations of their own demise in unimaginative, me-too decision-making, content with emulating the competition or making marginal improvements. They insist on deploying only proven solutions with solid reference sites, thereby ensuring they'll never rise above their peers.

CEOs' highest priorities are to improve business processes and implement projects that deliver business growth. Controlling costs and meeting service-level agreements are no longer enough. The future for successful IT leaders lies in creating capabilities that differentiate the enterprise in the market. That requires them to achieve real innovation, either by introducing new technologies or, more likely, by effectively exploiting established ones.

The problem isn't that IT leaders don't get it -- 85 percent of the CIOs Gartner has surveyed understand that innovation is important to enterprise success. But they don't know how to deliver results. Only 26 percent of CIOs consider their innovation processes sufficient to achieve their strategy.

The ability to apply visionary thinking to everyday business challenges is key to success. Incremental improvements can help control costs and boost productivity, but they rarely deliver the decisive blow needed to knock out the competition.

Meanwhile, the centralized IT function, with its technology-biased conventional thinking, is losing touch with the business. Whereas IT thinks in terms of systems and technology, the business thinks in terms of services. What business needs is agility. IT, however, wants stability, because change is too difficult. Unable to dismantle the legacy leviathan built to meet yesterday's challenges, technologists hide behind security, resource constraints and regulations to maintain the status quo.

The CIOs who succeed tend to see themselves as businesspeople first, technologists second. They think in terms of business objectives, not technical achievements. In their view, IT's purpose is to destroy barriers to business success, not add more bricks to the enterprise architecture.

Such leaders readily turn to external service providers in appropriate cases and consider innovative ways of using consumer-grade technology. Their power derives from what they enable, not what they control.

Stephen Prentice is VP Distinguished Analysts at Gartner (Stamford, Conn.)

Courtesy of InformationWeek, a CMP Technology property.